David Bowie just released The Next Day, his first studio album in nearly 10 years. The cover is a sly homage to his Heroes album, to his alter egos, and to a bygone era of rock and roll pageantry. Now it's the Next Day, after all that madness, see, and he's just another old dude writing rock songs.
Well, not quite. It's still Bowie. And the music, therefore, is wilder, more confident and more interesting than most pop ever even aims to be. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," "Love Is Lost," and the title track are satisfying Bowie-an mercurial rockers, and "Where Are We Now" is the most melancholic and assured ballad he's penned in decades.
That said, this Next Day conceit does kind of bum me out. It means no more high rock-and-roll drama. No more Berlin trilogies. No more Thin White Dukes. No more Ziggy Stardusts.
And that's what burns. Few musicians ever had the gall to spin an entire album around an idea as grandiose and absurd and amazing as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Namely, that a Martian rock star came to Earth to entertain humanity during the last five years of its existence, came to believe he was a prophet for the Starman that would save them, and ended up rocking himself into oblivion and committing rock 'n' roll suicide. That's a full-on, sci-fi opus crammed into a single LP. Bowie, of course, brought the conceit to life by performing as Ziggy, and referring to himself as such on stage. Also, the album rules.
Bowie invented an entire mythology to flesh out the back story behind those 11 songs. I know this because he explained it all to William Burroughs in the 70s, when the beat legend was kind of going through a sci-fi kick of his own. This fascinating Rolling Stone feature brought the two pop culture bigwigs together for some reason (they were both in London at the time or something?), in a story that would come to be titled "Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman." You can't make this stuff up.
Anyway, Burroughs interviews Bowie, and the "glitter mainman" goes into more detail than ever about how he conceived Ziggy. Check it out:
Burroughs: Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.
Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There's no electricity to play it. Ziggy's adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, 'cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. 'All the young dudes' is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.
Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.
Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I've made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.
Burroughs: Yes, a black hole on stage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.
Bowie: Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes 'Starman', which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch on to it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don't have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.
Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song 'Rock 'n' roll suicide'. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!
Black hole jumpers, an approaching apocalypse, alien prophets, interstellar space travel, and otherworldly anti-matter beings. That's some heavy sci-fi right there. Bowie is channeling some of the most popular science fiction themes of the day, along with undertones of resource over-consumption that were popularized by Paul Ehrlich's then-prevalent population bomb theory in the late 60s and early 70s. It's pretty incredible. There is precisely no modern analog: It'd be like Kanye West writing a concept album about dark matter, alien life below Antarctic lakes, string theory, and global warming today.
Yet Ziggy Stardust was Bowie's breakthrough. It was the first of his albums to see singles top the charts, and the tour was a smash hit. It launched his previous albums back into circulation. It caused a stir: The flamboyant show, the aggressive androgyny, the rampant speculation over Bowie's sexuality—it all contributed to the finely-crafted spectacle.
That Bowie, who came to be known for his fictional alter egos, kicked off his streak with a character deeply indebted to sci-fi is telling. It was 1972—smack dab in the middle of the space race. It was shortly after Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey became a huge phenomenon (both Burroughs and Bowie site it in the above interview). Star Trek was on TV, and Star Wars was right around the corner. There are even many pronounced similarities between Robert Heinlein's 1961 already-classic Stranger in a Strange Land and the Ziggy storyline, though Bowie claims to dislike the book.
Pop culture was, in other words, teeming with sci-fi influence. Few major pop musicians, if any, had found a way to exploit the pop culture's burgeoning interest in all things intergalactic in such a compelling and sexy way—one befitting a rock star. Bowie's heavy blend of sci-fi and glamor was both trendy and trail-blazing in 1972. It may have even made his persona both more exciting and palatable to British audiences: Ziggy wasn't just some quirky, androgynous human. He was an alien.
Bowie's biographer, David Buckley, noted that Ziggy and its accompanying tour "challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day" and "created perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture." And you know the rest. Bowie is now one of the best-known rock stars in history. He's a great songwriter, sure, but he's also one of the most consistently intriguing personas to ever grace the medium. And that legacy has its foundation in a wild imagination and daring execution. Ziggy Stardust is a monument both to rock and roll and science fiction alike.
But now it's the Next Day, and the era of epic sci-fi-inspired, mainstream rock has formally been concluded. Bands like Green Day and Coldplay may occasionally eke out a concept album, but they're bunting where Bowie aimed for the rafters. Plus, they're Coldplay and Green Day.
What's more, science fiction has drifted from its erstwhile station as a central force in pop culture. It's still popular, but as a distinctly defined genre, where it is safely tucked away as a vehicle for the occasional action film. It no longer exhilarates and titillates the masses the way it did in the 70s. It's a shame no modern-day Ziggy Stardust has risen up to help it do so.